Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Goethe and Religion

I am always looking for contemporary angles with which to talk about Goethe, mostly to make clear to myself who he was. It is very difficult to get a handle on people from the past. Sometimes it is easier to discuss what they were like by looking at what they were NOT like. Goethe was certainly not religious in a conventional sense. When Gretchen asked, "How do you stand with religion?" (Nun sag, wie hast du's mit der Religion?), Faust prevaricated. Still, Goethe took religion very seriously, as can be seen, at a minimum, in his autobiography. He has been called a "non-Christian humanitarian." What does that mean exactly?

I got some insight this past Sunday, on learning that January 25 is now the feast of the conversion of Saint Paul. A jubilee year, from 28 June 2008 to 29 June 2009, on the occasion of the bi-millennium of Paul's birth (placed by historians between 7 and 10 A.D.), has also been declared by Pope Benedict XVI. (The stained glass image is from the parish church of Melton Mowbray, in Leicestershire. It was taken by a wonderful photographer, whom I know only as Lawrence OP and who has a site dedicated to the year of Saint Paul.)

As far as I know Goethe made no pronouncements concerning Saint Paul and didn't even see while in Rome the famous painting by Caravaggio (in Santa Maria del Popolo) portraying Paul's conversion. Conversion itself is not something I have come across in Goethe's writings. It strikes me that conversion -- a radical turnaround in one's life and the emergence of a new self -- would have been alien to Goethe's notion of "Bildung," which was not a transformative event but a life-long process. Not for Goethe what Tolstoy described, when writing of his own religious conversion: "Everything that was on the right hand of the journey is now on the left."

We do know, however, Goethe's views on original sin. He didn't think much of it. Coincidentally, on Sunday evening I came across a book review of a new book by Alan Jacobs, entitled Original Sin: A Cultural History. The book of Genesis sets the scene for the disobedience of Adam and Eve (as portrayed in this 1909 painting by Suzanne Valadon), but it was only in Christianity -- not in Judaism -- that there developed the doctrine of original sin.

And it was Paul who first enunciated the doctrine: "Wherefore as by one man sin entered this world, and by sin death; and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned" (Romans 5, 12). In his book Jacobs is not so much interested in the development of the doctrine in Christian history (e.g., in Augustine) as he is (per the subtitle) in its role in our identity as humans. Jacobs is a professor of literature, and the examples he cites range from high literature (Shakespeare, Milton, Bunyan, and so on, but also from Confucius and Rousseau) to popular culture (movies like Animal House!)

It is not surprising that Goethe, as a man of the Enlightenment, would not agree with words spoken by the pope during a December address at the Vatican: "The existence of the power of evil in the human heart and in human history is an undeniable fact." On the contrary. In 1822, responding to a review of the "Pedagogical Province" of Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, Goethe wrote, "Il y a une fibre adorative dans le coeur humain." Of course, Goethe was aware that bad things happen in the world, and he does not condone them. From early on, however, he was on the side of those who might be called law-breakers: Prometheus, Mahomet, Faust.

The notion of original sin is radically democratic: all humans come into the world stained with it. Goethe was a democratic person; he thought highly of "brotherly love." But he was also a spiritual elitist. Like many in the Enlightenment, Goethe would have believed that humans had the moral ability not to do evil, though this ability was something that had to be nourished and cultivated, perhaps supplementing that innate "fibre adorative." Thus the importance of education.

The supreme quality of Goethe's faith was "reverence" (Ehrfurcht). There were many strands in his thinking here. An important one was Spinoza; another was his scientific studies. Both gave him a view of humans and nature that was radically different from the Christian view of a world created for man and over which he was to have dominion. Goethe, however, departed from the strict instrumentalist view of the Enlightenment, namely, that humans could manipulate nature for their own advantage. Goethe thought nature mysterious; thus, his reverence for it.

As is well known, he parted ways with Newton. It was Newton's discoveries that had opened men's eyes to the power of intellect and reason: "Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night/ God said, 'Let Newton be' and all was light" (Alexander Pope). Many Enlightenment thinkers thus imagined that humans, through their rational capacities, could ensure that bad things would no longer happen to good people. Goethe was not so sanguine. While activity was important, the potential destructiveness of "do good-ism" can be seen in the fateful consequences of Faust's schemes for worldly improvement. Goethe had a sense of man's limits, but it was in the act of striving and of doing that man (and woman, too, though he was not so "enlightened" as we!) would redeem himself.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for that good read brother

David Balfour said...

I wonder what Goethe would have made of Mormon doctrine. They LDS church radically reinterpret the story of genesis as progressive and not a fall. The doctrine of original sin is rejected as part of the restoration. It sounds as though Goethe would have approved based on this post.

Goethe Girl said...

David: I don't know the answer, but I will post your query on the blog.